Saturday, June 30, 2012

Saturday Night Special

I was born on a Saturday night fifty years ago today, and this morning I sat on a gigantic deck overlooking Pinkham Bay in Steuben, Maine considering my birthday dinner. My whole family has traveled thousands of miles from Minnesota, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Virginia to spend the week with me, and nothing could be more special than that. Even so, we have to eat, and meals are always a celebration for us. I knew there would be lobster, of course, but what else should we have?

When we were kids, our usual Saturday night dinner was steak, french fries, salad, and sauteed mushrooms, peppers, and onions. My mom bought an economical cut of beef, grilled or broiled it, and then sliced it thin. A few shakes of Lawry's seasoned salt and it was the finest of entrees to us. My dad peeled the potatoes and hand-cut them for the fries. He also cut up the onions and peppers-- and that is most of the cooking I ever remember him doing. As for the salad, iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, celery, and tomatoes with Wish Bone Italian dressing was a delicious compliment to the meal. We loved it.

2601 Saturday nights in, I decided to go with a classic, updated to be sure, but the steaks are grilling right now.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Schoodic Sound Bites

The bottom of the ocean here is much like the shore-- granite ledges and boulders.

Where's my journal? I need to draw some of this.

Follow me! I see the blue slashes!

This is the best hike we've done so far, and it's really close to our house... why haven't we been here before?

Did you ever think 10 years ago that you'd be doing these hikes at 73 years old?

Actually, I'm thinking of how it will be ten years from now.

Flip flops might not have been the best choice for this hike.

That was only one mile?

I've been thinking the whole way that this whole forest reminds me of a Harry Potter movie. Awesome!

She did it in flip flops!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

New Trick

You know it's been a good day when your dog falls asleep in the car on the way home... sitting up.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Look Upward

After four days of solid rain we finally saw a rainbow today. It was in the eastern sky near sunset and so Annabelle, Courtney, and I stood on the beach in our wellies, sunset before us, rainbow behind. I would say that it was a lovely ending to the day, but just a few minutes ago I noticed the setting moon casting a looooong reflection that resembled nothing more than a silver razor clam over Pinkham Bay, and when I stepped out to admire the view, a godzillion stars in the night sky blinked at me, so now I'm thinking that that might be a fine ending to this day.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Little Cat Feet

It was raining again today, so Heidi, Louise, and I headed east to Machias. The town itself was a bit underwhelming, but the fog we encountered along the way almost made up for it. As we rolled along the coastal highway, the sea was invisible, but gray stands of balsam and fir emerged from misty shrouds at the edges of ghostly blueberry fields. It was never a solid bank of gloom; we could always see just far enough ahead to wonder what else was out there, and it shifted so that what was visible might be completely obscured when next you looked.

Stephen King is from Maine. Enough said?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Remote Control

"I wish we had a teleporter," Kyle said on the trip back from Bar Harbor today to our rental house in Steuben this afternoon. "I would just transport myself to the front door and walk in."

"You wouldn't have a key," one of the older boys helpfully pointed out. "Why not just transport yourself inside?"

"Good idea," he agreed.

My thoughts went in a different direction. In these days of incredible and extreme connectivity, it seems that everywhere is nearby. Not only can you email or skype or facetime anyone almost anywhere in the world, you can have almost anything you want delivered to your home within a week.

As for this place? Relative to my home in a busy metro area it takes a long time to get anywhere from here, but even in the last two days I've noticed my perspective changing with each landmark I am able to remember and recognize. The distances seem shorter.

How different the Down East Maine coast would be if people could teleport here. It is wild and beautiful partially because it is so remote. If anyone could just pop in and pop home at will, well, the mosquitoes might have a lot more to eat.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Ground Water

There are many things I like aboout Maine, but one of them is the temperature of the tap water. Back in Virginia there's no such thing as cool drink of water much after Memorial Day. Not so here-- it is icy cold from the faucet all year long.

I have been drawn to this state since the first time I visited here seventeen years ago. To be honest, it was only courtesy that led me to accept a new friend's invitation to visit her family's summer home on Mt. Dessert Island. When I arrived, the brilliant 80 degree days in mid-August certainly turned my head, but it was the combination of ocean, mountain, and forest that won my heart.

We were driving down yet another road lousy with views of lobster boats, light houses, forests, and granite ledges, our windows open to the balsam and salt air, when it all became clear to me. "I hate it here," I said. "There will never be any place better. The coast of Maine has ruined the world for me."

My perspective has been tempered over the years since then, mostly by mosquitoes and long drives, but this evening after the rain clouds cleared to a painfully blue sky, Treat and Josh and Kyle and Isabel and I did a most remarkable 1.5 mile hike through field and forest and leading to a lovely cobble stone and sand beach, and as if that was not enough, there was lobster for dinner and some ice cold water from the tap.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Rain in Maine

Dateline June 23, 2012, Somewhere on I-95 between Augusta and Bangor

It's a long way from our house to the place we are staying for the next Two weeks, some 750 miles, but usually it's a trip that I enjoy. The Atlantic states are like so many stepping stones that we hopscotch merrily over on our way to Vacationland; an hour or so in each one and then it's on to the next.

Even so, when you hit the Maine border and realize that there are still more than three hours to go, road weariness is a hazard. We customarily shake it off by making a quick pit stop to stretch our legs and smell the Maine. One deep breath of the balsam and salt air restores us.

Today torrents of rain started just as we crossed over from New Hampshire and sadly, smelling the rain didn't have quite the same effect. Still we slog on, because a soggy vacation is still a vacation.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Never the Same Text Twice

I confess that this has been a hectic couple of weeks. There were days I thought would never come and others I never thought would end.Through it all I've been scrambling to keep ahead of the next thing, so it was hardly surprising when I found myself sitting at my desk at 5:30 PM on the evening before the last day of school trying to plan a coherent, 30 minute, lesson that would be meaningful to my students.

This morning I heard a clip from Aaron Sorkin's new TV show Newsroom, where in response to the question What makes America the greatest country in the world? the main character replies:

We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined - 25 of whom are allies. 

I get his strident reservations, but I remembered the angel stat well into the day, and I might just thank an angel for the idea that occurred to me for that final activity of the year. We returned to the very first poem we read together, Knoxville, Tennessee by Nikki Giovanni.

It was definitely one of the most interesting lessons I've ever taught. Many students recognized the text, so I told them that I wanted to compare their observations now to what they said then. Qualitatively, there seemed to be quite a bit of growth.

"It's so easy now!" one student exclaimed. "When I heard it the first time it just seemed like too many words."

And every class was able to point out the sensory details as well as the devices Giovanni uses to create a child's voice.

"It's like an ode to summer," mentioned one kid, and I was pleased that he not only remembered odes but recognized one.

My favorite comment came from one of my most thoughtful students. "When I first read it in September it seemed like she was looking back at summer, but now it seems like she's in a rush for summer to come." She paused, and her eyes widened. "No!"she whispered. "That's how I feel... Cool!"

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Have a Seat

Something there is about the last day of school that brings out the emotion in everyone. Here's an example:

It's the end of homeroom. A student approaches in tears.

She: Waaaaaaah! This is our last TA EVER!

Me: Wasn't that you who told me you hated TA on Monday?

She, clutching me: Waaaah! This is our last hug ever!

Me: This is our first hug ever...

But I knew how she felt. Endings are always hard.

Me: Hey, listen-- you know where to find me. I'll be right here next year. You can come sit in the chair by my desk any time.

She: Yeah! That will always be my chair right?

Me: Right!
And that's why that chair is there. It belongs to anyone who needs to sit there.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Above My Pay Grade

We had our big end of the year field trip today, and despite clear communication that all permission slips were due yesterday I found myself in the main office at 8 AM on the phone with a parent. One hundred people waited on two charter buses as an irate dad informed me that he had sent in the required paper work several weeks ago.

It didn't matter that not only had I personally reminded the student several times that he needed to turn in his permission, nor that I had called the dad the evening before to say that if his son brought in his forms this morning he would still be allowed to go. I explained then exactly what he needed and he assured me that he understood and would do what was necessary. Now he reverted to the story that they had submitted the forms weeks ago along with their payment.

"We only sent the permission slips home last week," I said.

"He has to go! It wouldn't be fair to leave him behind," his dad insisted. "This is not his fault."

"We can't take him without the form," I apologized.

"I sent that form, I know it!" he told me.

We went back and forth a couple of times until finally I said, "I can't make exceptions. It's not my rule."

And with those magic words I realized that I needed to hand this phone call off to someone with more authority. "Just a moment," I told him. "I'm going to let you talk to an administrator."

In the end, the administrator let the kid go. She emailed his dad a copy of the slip, he faxed it back, and she emailed it to me at the location of our trip. 

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am no hardass when it comes to deadlines and such. I believe that if something is worth doing, then it's worth doing as long as it's possible.

Even so... this case? Ridiculous.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Got Talent?

Today was our annual school talent show, and as every year I was impressed by the guts that the performers had to get up there and play, sing and/or dance in front of a packed house. Back when I was in school, talent shows had a different flavor. There was a lot of lip-syncing, baton twirling, and cheesy magic.

I remember a couple of years ago being surprised at the number of solo a capella acts in our school show. Several kids just got up there and sang into the mike. It seemed like such a huge risk to take, completely out of the middle school nature, but then someone reminded me that American Idol auditions had that format.

Over the last week or so, Heidi has really gotten into So You Think You Can Dance. This season is still at the try out stage, and I have to admit that they do a good job blending talent and personal backstories to make some pretty good television. I would never watch it on my own, but I don't mind having it on.

And, thanks to that viewing experience, I totally understood where the dance acts today were coming from. In fact it was all I could do to keep from calling out, "And... cue music."

Monday, June 18, 2012

Crunching the Numbers

Teachers always talk about the nature of one group of students compared to another. One year they are sweet, another sharp, still another short and stupid (not really-- but you get the idea). It's not the individuals we are characterizing, but rather how they interact: it's the group dynamic that shapes the collective personality.

This year? The kids on our sixth grade team have been... challenging. Sure, there are a lot of variables, but the exact same teachers teaching the exact same subjects have all come to the consensus that, communally, these kids do less work and get in more trouble than the sixth graders in the two years past.

Well, that's been our impression, but today I was faced with some sobering evidence. As I do each year, I had the students add up the total number of pages they have logged for their independent reading since September. Last year, my students read an average of 10,788 pages per person for a total of over three quarters of a million pages. The figures today were very disappointing. These kids averaged 5,356 pages, less than half of their counterparts.

 Not surprisingly, many weren't too keen on the recommended summer reading list I offered. A lot weren't even willing to commit to choosing their own books to read. "We just want to chill," one student said, "especially after all the crud of school." There were nods of agreement all around.

"That may be," I shrugged, "but you can bet there are some kids who are going to read this summer, and you know what? They are the ones you are going to be competing with to get into college and probably for the jobs you want."

Was it my hopeful imagination or did their eyes grow slightly wider?

"Well... I might read something," the student answered, and fortunately there were several nods from his peers.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The View from Sunday Night

So much accomplished, so much left to do.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Break Point

The end of the school year is that proverbial snowball. It seems to approach at glacial speed until it doesn't, and then? It rockets toward you rolling up everything in its wake. In addition to the skis that always stick out of it in cartoons, you will also find those final assignments that just did not get finished all the way.

My classes spent their last day in the computer lab on Friday, and there were lots of students who had lots to do if they wished to finish all their work. "This is it!" I told them. "No more lab time this year!" Many were actually shocked. I think they believed that the year would go on indefinitely, probably because until last week it felt like it would.

I commiserated with them. "I kind of wish we had a few more days," I said at one point. "Not that I'm not ready for vacation, because I AM!" I added, perhaps a little too quickly.

"Wow," someone said, "You must really need a break!"

They have no idea.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Can't Get No...

Dogs are amazing.

My dog has been whining at the TV cabinet for three days or more. I know from experience that there has to be something she wants but can not get over there, but I can't find a thing. No toys or balls have rolled beyond her reach. Even when I stoop to scan beneath it, I find nothing. Still, she persists.

Say what you will about her exuberance for visitors, but even as she ages, she is a usually contented canine. So when she whines? I want to deliver.

And so there I was on hands and knees with a flashlight examining the darkest reaches of the cupboard's nether region when I spotted a sliver of a liver snack way in the back. How it got there I have no clue, but I know the end of its story. I swept it out, and I think I heard my dog sigh when she ate it, maybe in pleasure, maybe in relief, but definitely in

satisfaction. Hey, hey, hey.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Fathers Day

We had a celebration at school today to honor our retiring principal. It was a warm event and drew many people from near and far who have known her over the last 38 years of her career or even all of her life. Her 99-year-old dad made the trip up from Florida for the occasion. I don't think I've ever met anyone that old, and he was impressive-- very spry and on the ball. His off-the-cuff tribute to his daughter began, "She was an awful child," and rolled with the laughs from there. After seeing him, fifty more years seems totally do-able now.

I also saw a young woman who was in the first sixth grade group I taught. A teacher who is currently a stay-at-home mom, she was there to help out with another end-of-the-year activity. She was finished with her volunteer gig when we saw each other. "Where's Philip?" I asked about her toddler. She was all too happy to make a call to her dad who was babysitting. In no time, I was visiting with the trio in my classroom. It was a funny three generation kind of thing. Philip was adorable, and it was interesting to see Stephanie all grown up and in a totally different role, and Dave, her dad? Exactly the same as I remembered him: an unassuming, corny kind of aw-shucks guy with a lot going on underneath. He was clearly devoted to his children then as he is to his grandson now.

It's been 25 years since I've needed to buy a Fathers Day card, and many times the day passes with only a fleeting thought, and usually I don't really regret that.

Today I did.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Hump

So THAT'S what that was at 1:30 AM this morning. Fingers crossed that it really is all downhill from here (at least until late August).

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Up Too Late

Didn't I learn this lesson in college?
Graduate school?
The other graduate school?
Education doesn't always make you smart.

Monday, June 11, 2012

An Old Fashioned Guy

"I try to give good service at a reasonable price."

That's what the appliance repairman said to me this afternoon after he showed up on time with the necessary parts and quickly fixed the dishwasher. What's more? I called him on Saturday, and he was able to come today. Heck, he even liked our dog.

"What's the point of not doing that?" he continued rhetorically. "No one will ever call you back." Before he left, he gave me an itemized bill along with the old parts he'd replaced.

You can bet I put his card in a very safe place.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

See You Again Soon

This weekend marked the formal celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Girl Scouts. In honor of their birthday, the GSA organized a weekend of festivities here in Washington, D.C. called Girl Scouts Rock the Mall. There were exhibits, activities, a rally, a world-record flash mob, and of course a sing along.

Our favorite girl scouts, Allyn and Delaney, were in town for the event with their mom. They stayed with us, and it was a fun weekend. Not to compete with the scouts or anything, but we had perfect pool weather, great food (including a cupcake taste test), and good company.

As they packed their things to go, both girls wished that they never had to leave. "That's the sign of a good visit," we told them, "when you have to go home before you're ready."

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Look it Up

Not long ago an excerpt from a new book popped up on the website I was reading. Sure the mention of Hemingway, as in It all began with Hemingway, caught my eye (who doesn't like a little Papa?), but it was definitely the word apposite that made me stop.

I don't know that word.

I like to think I'm fairly intelligent and pretty well educated, also I've been teaching English for nearly 20 years, and that ought to count for something, and quite frankly, it's not often that I encounter unfamiliar words in my reading, so I was a little bit surprised. I read on. Not two sentences later did the word appurtenance appear. I don't know that one either.

The narrative was engaging and the topic of interest, but it was clear that the vocabulary was going to be a stretch. Without hesitation, I bought the kindle version of the book on the spot, and for the first time ever, I used the glossary function to give me the definitions of those words; within moments I consulted it twice more (encomiums, scabrous) just while reading the Introduction. What a handy tool!

As has become my habit in many personal learning situations, I thought of my students and how my experience was relevant to theirs. There are a lot of words that sixth graders don't know, and it's always interesting how they approach them. Most treat them as if they are invisible or at least inconsequential to the text; they have a definite work around mentality that pretty much works. Others consider such obscurity to be a sign that the writing is completely incomprehensible to them and they stop reading.

Either way, very few look them up, but research shows that most fluent readers rarely break their stride to parse unfamiliar words. I wonder if that will change now that every definition is literally at our fingertips.

Friday, June 8, 2012

If You Cut Me, I Would Shine

I'm sure there are statistics on such things, but today it seemed my memories ranged well over a span of forty years. A conversation about soda flavors reminded me of grocery shopping with my dad-- we'd buy the store brand sodas at ten for a dollar; my brother and sister and I would each get to pick three and my dad would choose the tenth; it was always cream soda. Back then you needed an actual can opener to enjoy your soda; pop tops were a thing of the future.

Later in the day a colleague was describing his summer trip to Italy, and I was transported to the upstairs bar in Florence. That was the secret place that all the kids at my Swiss boarding school went to drink whenever they were there. The tequila sunrises were legendary, with gorgeous layers of fresh-squeezed orange juice and grenadine. They were the only alcoholic beverage I ever saw my Southern Baptist friend drink.

And not thirty minutes later, I remembered being at the end of the bench during the final girls basketball game ten years ago. Three minutes from an undefeated season, we were down by a few points against a school that in most years beat us pretty badly. Of all teams I've coached, I remember those girls for their heart. We won it at the buzzer. It turns out that one of my students now has a cousin who played for us then. I found that out by reading the profile piece that her classmate had written.

I love the poem On Turning Ten by Billy Collins. I don't consider it a melancholy meditation on aging at all, but rather a parody of those who stare wistfully out the window wondering where the years have gone. Once, when I couldn't sleep, I tried to remember one thing from every year of my life. I think I drifted off before I finished revisiting my twenties.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Watch Your Step

My students are doing a lovely job on their profile pieces. The writing is warm and witty, and so many of them have shown a knack for the style and voice that is most common in such articles. Oh sure, there have been a few missteps, but mostly they have been slight stumbles on the way to a knock-out profile. Here's an example of a minor mistake that made me giggle:

A plane flies into one of El Salvador’s airports. The passengers get their luggage, and start off the plane. One girl looks out into the country. The warm breeze touches her cheek. She walks off the plane, and steps on her heritage for the first time. 


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Variable Weather

Yesterday I had a group of kids in my room ready for an outdoor field trip to conduct some local stream water testing. We had a few minutes before we were scheduled to walk to the park, and dark clouds gathered outside the window joining the sunshine and blue skies.

"Do you think it will rain?" a student asked me.

"Do you think it will rain?" I replied.

He and several other kids responded; it seemed like an even split of yeses and nos.

"Sounds like we have some pessimists here," I commented.

"Huh?" someone said, and scanning the room, I realized that she was not the only student unfamiliar with the term.

Forgive me for resorting to the obvious, but I drew a glass on the chalk board along with a line to show that there was liquid to the halfway point. "There!" I pronounced. "Is this glass half-empty or is it half-full?"

Just as with the weather, there was a pretty even split as the kids called out what they saw, although a couple savvy students answered, "Both!".

"Everyone's right," I said. "It's all about whether you look at what you have or what you're missing... have... missing... have... missing," I chanted as I pointed at the bottom and top of my illustration. "What kind of person are you?" I asked as I checked the clock and saw we still had a few more minutes before it was time to go.

And then Brandon had a total breakthrough. A spark ignited in his eyes and his body literally jerked. "I get it!" he said. "I get it!" he repeated to the kid next to him, and the understanding was clearly very profound. "Why can't you teach all of our classes?" he said to me. "The other teachers are--"

"Half full!" I reminded him.

"Exactly!" he answered, which was not quite the lesson I had in mind.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Turn Around, Bright Eyes

There's been a lot of press about the "Transit of Venus"-- that astronomical event, occurring even as I type, where Venus is actually visible to we Earthlings as a tiny dot on the sun as its orbit crosses ours. Much has been made of the fact that the next transit is not for 105 years (so see it while you can, folks!), but some of the coverage has focused on the practical aspects of viewing such a rare spectacle, reminding us that it is dangerous to look directly into the sun; in fact, I actually heard these words on the radio this morning, you can destroy your vision instantly... Yikes!

When I was 7 there was a total eclipse of the sun that was visible across North America. Thinking back, it seems like that was all anyone talked about for days. Both at school and at home we were warned again and again not to look right at it. At the same time, it seemed like everyone had a trick for being able to watch the eclipse without damaging your eyesight.

When the time came, my dad poked a hole in a sheet of paper and held it in the direct sunlight streaming through our living room window with another piece of paper below it. The idea was that the light shining through the pinhole would be eclipsed as the sun was. I don't think it worked, because I also remember watching the eclipse on TV.

Back then, I imagined that if we looked our eyes would ignite and burn away, and we would be left blind, but with that final image of that sun's corona dancing around the shadow of the moon burned into our brains forever.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Read All About It

The finishing touch of most journalism pieces is not a title but a headline.

So I told my students today as we embarked on the last week of their personal profile assignment. Before we looked at some tips on how to write an effective headline, we looked at a few examples of some that had fallen short. Here they are:

Police chase winds through three towns
Teacher strikes idle kids
Trial ends in mercy killing
Owners responsible for biting canines
Sisters reunited after 18 years in checkout line at supermarket
Services for man who refused to hate Thursday in Atlanta
Grandmother of eight makes hole in one
Milk drinkers are turning to powder
Juvenile court tries shooting suspect 
New rule cuts tardy students in half

As for that last one? My homeroom this year would be a bloodbath.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Dreaded Red Number

If you know that the title of this post refers to a cartoon drawing of a dentist in red smock and dreadlocks, Novocain at the ready, that appeared on a map of downtown Washington DC, then you were at the 5th annual PostHunt today.

My nephew, Treat, and I were there, too, and we agreed at the end of the afternoon that this year was really hard. We sort of got four out of the five puzzles, and I was proud of myself for deciphering a tiny bit of the endgame on the subway platform, even after we had given up.

The day was beautiful though and luck was on our side. As we plotted and solved our way around Penn Quarter, we overshot the best street to turn on to take us to our next clue, so we took the next right instead. Walking down a street nearly deserted of fellow hunters, I squinted at some people up the block. They were definitely wearing STAFF shirts. "What are they doing here?" I wondered aloud, and we picked up our pace a little to find out. Miraculously, they handed us what happened to be a clue to a puzzle we were stuck on.

"Yay!" I cheered. "How did we do that?"

Treat studied the map. "It's right here," he pointed. "The dreaded red numb-er."

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Soul of Wit

I am not one who goes in much for pageantry and ceremony-- we can analyze that in another entry-- so this time of year with its first communions, weddings, retirements, awards, and graduations can be trying for me.

Today was an exception, however. We attended the graduation of a good friend's son, and although I was dreading it a bit, it was painless. No, it was better than painless: it was actually sort of enjoyable.

Why? Well, he was one of only two graduating from his Sudbury school. There were just four chairs on the stage, and following a brief welcome, a personal speaker for each graduate, and remarks from both boys, we were witness to the quickest.diploma.procession.ever.

Short, individualized, and student-centered... just my kind of thing.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Diminishing Returns

I had my writing group last night and as always it was a fun evening. We have been meeting monthly for nearly six years now, and I love the camaraderie. The food's great too, and the writing is none too shabby. It's always a thrill to see what my friends bring.

As for myself, well, I struggle lately.  Eighteen months ago I started something, a little story which will probably end up as my third unfinished novel. I've written a bit for almost every meeting since then, and I have perhaps 5000 words. Last night was definitely the least I've ever composed, one paragraph of perhaps 125 words.

I liked it though; it was a fine paragraph indeed.

And... at this rate? I'll have some kind of something in about 10 years. Stay tuned.

In the meantime,  kudos to my friend, Mike, whose first novel was published yesterday!